In Singapore, eating is a national obsession. So much so, that upon greeting each other, Singaporeans will often throw out a “have you eaten yet?” before asking, “how are you?” The city’s culinary scene is constantly exploding with new restaurants fueled by innovative fusions and celebrity chefs, but for the visitor on a budget, the long-established Singapore hawker centers (numbering more than a hundred) are the Holy Grail for delicious eats on the cheap.
Hawker centers are temples for food worshipers, purpose-built facilities bursting with as many as 200 food stalls specializing in different dishes. The term “hawker” is a throwback to the days when migrant food vendors trolled Singapore streets hawking their fare; later, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, in the name of food safety and hygiene, the vendors were relocated to designated hawker centers throughout the city. Today, stalls are strictly monitored and must display their grades as awarded for hygienic standards and stall cleanliness, so that customers can enjoy the street food experience without any uncomfortable side effects.
I set out to get in on the gastronomic goodness at the Old Airport Road Food Centre, conveniently situated for a foodie fix on your way into or out of the airport, and widely heralded as one of the city’s superlative hawker centers, boasting a great variety of high-quality dishes. Here, the culinary culture comes to life with fantastic flavors gobbled up in a feeding frenzy.
I came during the midst of monsoon-season rains, when hailing a taxi required near-divine intervention, but even still, this somewhat off-the-path center was overrun with local patrons who couldn’t be kept away from their preferred grub. First order of business: Nabbing a table at a first-come, first-served hawker center, which requires invoking your inner vulture to hover around diners as they finish their nosh, before swooping in to mark your turf.
Once a seat is secured, you're free contemplate the foodie paradise before you, sniffing your way through the rows and rows of curries, soups, sauces, and more. When in doubt, or overwhelmed by choice, follow your nose to the stalls with longer lines – don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from locals as you wait, who are happy to clue visitors in to just what they’re salivating over.
Most food stalls deliver your order to your table (don’t forget to note its designated number), others are self-service, requiring you to wait. Just act quickly upon arrival; once a vendor's grub is sold out, the stalls are shuttered. Several stalls were already closed for the evening at our 7pm arrival time. As an added money-saving bonus for budget travelers, note that at hawker centers, you’ll forgo the normal restaurant tax and can skip the tip here, too.
We dove in on a family-style feast of Hokkien mee, a noodle-based seafood dish; an oyster omelet paired with chili sauce; a requisite chicken satay; turnip-stuffed spring rolls; and coconut sticky rice steamed in banana leaf, all washed down with sugarcane juice. My more adventurous beau also sampled fried stingray. Most plates ring in under $5, though specialties like the stingray dish hover closer to $8.
Wherever you choose to chow down, in Singapore, food is the stuff from which travel memories are made – epicureans will definitely want to keep Singapore in mind as food for thought for their next gastronomic-inspired getaway.
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!